In late February 1860, in the midst of a cold and snowy winter, New York City received a visitor from Illinois who had, some thought, a remote chance of running for president on the ticket of the young Republican Party.
By the time Abraham Lincoln left the city a few days later, he was well on his way to the White House. One speech given to a crowd of 1,500 politically astute New Yorkers had changed everything, and had positioned Lincoln to be a candidate in the election of 1860.
Lincoln, while not famous in New York, was not entirely unknown in the political realm. Less than two years before, he had challenged Stephen Douglas for the seat in the U.S. Senate Douglas had held for two terms. The two men faced each other in a series of seven debates across Illinois in 1858, and the well-publicized encounters established Lincoln as a political force in his home state.
Lincoln carried the popular vote in that Senate election, but at that time Senators were selected by state legislators. And Lincoln ultimately lost the Senate seat thanks to backroom political maneuvers.
Lincoln Recovered from His Loss in the 1858 Senate Election
In 1859, Lincoln reassessed his political future. And he obviously decided to keep his options open. He made an effort to take time off from his busy law practice to give speeches outside of Illinois, traveling to Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and Iowa. And he also spoke in Kansas, which had become known as "Bleeding Kansas" thanks to the bitter violence between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces in the 1850s.
The speeches Lincoln gave throughout 1859 focused on the issue of slavery. He denounced it as an evil institution, and spoke out forcefully against it spreading into any new US territories. And he also criticized his perennial foe Stephen Douglas, who had been promoting the concept of “popular sovereignty,” in which citizens of new states could vote on whether or not to accept slavery. Lincoln denounced popular sovereignty as a “stupendous humbug.”
Lincoln Received an Invitation to Speak in New York City
In October 1859, Lincoln was at home in Springfield, Illinois when he received, by telegram, another invitation to speak. It was from a Republican Party group in New York City. Sensing a great opportunity, Lincoln accepted the invitation.
After several exchanges of letters, it was decided that his address in New York would be on the evening of February 27, 1860. The location was to be Plymouth Church, the Brooklyn church of the famed minister Henry Ward Beecher, who was aligned with the Republican Party.
Lincoln Did Considerable Research for His Cooper Union Address
Lincoln put considerable time and effort into crafting the address he would deliver in New York.
An idea being floated by pro-slavery advocates at the time was that Congress had no right to regulate slavery in new territories. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney of the US Supreme Court had actually advanced that idea in his notorious 1857 decision in the Dred Scott case, contending that the framers of the Constitution did not see such a role for Congress.
Lincoln believed that Taney’s decision was flawed. And to prove it, he set about conducting research into how the framers of the Constitution who later served in Congress voted in such matters. He spent time poring over historical documents, often visiting the law library in the Illinois state house.
Lincoln was writing during tumultuous times. During the months he was researching and writing in Illinois, the abolitionist John Brown led his infamous raid on the US armory at Harpers Ferry, and was captured, tried, and hanged.
An Iconic Portrait of Lincoln Was Snapped by Matthew Brady
In February, Lincoln had to take five separate trains over the course of three days to reach New York City. When he arrived, he checked into the Astor House hotel on Broadway. It wasn’t until he arrived in New York that Lincoln learned that the venue of his speech had changed, from Beecher’s church in Brooklyn to the Cooper Union (then called Cooper Institute), in Manhattan.
On the day of the speech, February 27, 1860, Lincoln took a stroll on Broadway with some men from the Republican group hosting his speech. At the corner of Bleecker Street Lincoln visited the studio of the famed photographer Mathew Brady, and had his portrait taken. In the photograph, Lincoln, who was not yet wearing his beard, is standing next to a table, resting his hand on some books.
The Brady photograph became iconic as it was the model for engravings which were widely distributed, and the image would be the basis for campaign posters in the 1860 election. The Brady photograph has become known as the “Cooper Union Portrait."
The Cooper Union Address Propelled Lincoln to the Presidency
As Lincoln took the stage that evening at Cooper Union, he faced an audience of 1,500 spectators. Most of them were active in the Republican Party, and among them were such luminaries as the editor of the antislavery New York Tribune, Horace Greeley. The audience was eager to listen to the man from Illinois. And Lincoln’s address surpassed all expectations.
Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech was one of his longest, at more than 7,000 words. And it is not one of his speeches with passages that are often quoted. Yet, due to the careful research and Lincoln's forceful argument, it was stunningly effective.
Lincoln was able show that the founding fathers had intended Congress to regulate slavery. He named the men who had signed the Constitution and who had later voted, while in Congress, to regulate slavery. He also demonstrated that George Washington himself, as President, had signed a bill into law that regulated slavery.
Lincoln spoke for more than an hour. He was interrupted often by enthusiastic cheering. The New York City newspapers carried the text of his speech the next day, with the New York Times running the speech on the front page. The favorable publicity was astounding, and Lincoln went on to speak in several other cities in the east before returning to Illinois.
That summer the Republican Party held its nominating convention in Chicago. Abraham Lincoln, beating out better known candidates, received his party's nomination. And historians tend to agree that it could never have happened if not for the address delivered months earlier on a cold winter night in New York City.